Last month the very first French-Led military space exercise was held in cooperation with Germany and Italy, as well as the U.S. Space Force.
It was a first in Europe for prior to this France would be only an observer in US-led exercises of this type.
Why the change ?
Taking place in Toulouse from March 8th till March 12th, this event was described by the Commander of the French Space Command since 2018, Air Division General Michel Friedling, as a ‘’stress test’’ for the French space command processes and systems.
A tactical exercise meant to train and prepare space combatants, ASTER X simulated an international crisis with no less than 18 different space events and scenarios ranging from an attack on a French satellite, space debris threatening civilian populations, jamming, etc.
Assessing future space operational needs is indeed key to enable not only France, but Europe as a whole, to operate effectively in the new XXIst century battleground, i.e. space.
Following in particular the 2017 publicly denounced Russian attempt to spy on the Athena-Fidus Franco-Italian military satellite – the French authorities became increasingly aware that space is no longer a sole means to support military operations on earth, but has been becoming over the past years a whole theater of conflict and even an operational domain on its own (the same way the maritime domain had become one in the XVIIth century).
The acknowledgement that a step beyond the existing weaponization of space (actually authorized by the only existing international treaty regulating space behavior since 1967) was taking place – i.e. the ‘’arsenalisation of space’’ allowing lethal operations to take place in space – triggered a radical overhaul of everything space in France in order to catch up with the development of the New Space and put in motion the 5 billion dollar strategy currently implemented in France since 2019 (3.6 bn Euros planned by the 2019-2025 Program Law to which 700 million Euros were later added).
Referring to John F. Kennedy’s ‘’New Frontier’’, the French minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, indeed stated in the introduction of the newly adopted French Defense Space Strategy in 2019 :
‘’If space has been a new frontier to cross, it has today become a ‘’new front’’ which we need to defend. (…)
The burst of game-changing innovation methods in the space sector – what is referred to as New Space – calls for a change of method in the way we apprehend the development of our space capabilities.
(…) Europe and France cannot be pushed aside from this new space of emerging conflictualities.’’ (An area definitely in sync with the Biden White House recent statements on the U.S. space policy).
Where is the focus for change ?
The Macron government’s reshuffling of space policy has been going full speed since 2019.
The Covid pandemic had an impact, postponing for example by a few months the launch of the military observation satellite CSO-2 from Guyana, a French territory especially impacted by the lockdown.
But by and large the calendar is being respected as the determination to keep its rank as the third international space power in an increasingly large and competitive club of nations can be felt.
Indeed 2021 happens to be already an especially busy year as far as French space military activities and reforms are concerned.
They reflect three major trends.
First is the restructuring of the military space chain of command.
In contrast to the United States’ decision to strip the USAF from the US Space Command, France has gone the opposite direction enabling the French Air Force to become the French Air and Space Force (AAE for ‘’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace’’) [photo logo] officially since Septembre 11th, 2020, a year after the creation of the Space Command (CDE for ‘’Commandement de l’espace’’) in replacement of the joint space command initially established in 2010 (CIE for ‘’Commandement interarmées de l’espace’’).
With its first space cadets (for the first time, a young Air Force officer nicknamed ‘’bébé espace’’ was directly assigned to a space position after graduation) recently born within the new AAE, the military currently relies on about 200 personnel (compared with 9,000 in the United States) spread on four different sites and centers – Balard (management), Toulouse (space operations C2), Lyon (a space situational awareness center called COSMOS for ‘’Centre opérationnel de surveillance militaire des objets spatiaux’’, as well as an observation center called CMOS for ‘’Centre militaire d’observation par satellites’’), Creil (part of CMOS as well).
All these personnel and centers are starting to migrate to the European capital and hub for space, i.e. Toulouse, which is adding a space academy, a space lab, and a whole international research and industrial ecosystem.
The CDE should host 500 military staff by 2025 in a building of its own For now, it is located within the national center for space studies, CNES (for ‘’Centre national d’études spatiales’’), which is illustrative of the following second major trend in the Macron government’s space strategy.
Second, there is the modernization of space capabilities via the pooling and sharing between the military and civilian sectors, between the public and private sectors.
If CNES and DGA (for ‘’Direction générale de l’armement’’), i.e. the French armed forces acquisition branch, have always closely worked together, and if the Air Force would request satellite images to CNES to conduct its military operations, there is a clear intent to increase the synergies between the two sides of the same coin, i.e. the development and protection of space assets.
Here too the governance choice is slightly different from the one made so far in Washington.
French resources being limited and more innovation happening in the private sector as far as space is concerned, the ministry of the armed forces wants to tap more rather than less into the latter in order to prevent a digital fracture and the threat of a strategic lag in the operational realm.
If CNES civilian space calendar in 2021 is pretty full (from Thomas Pesquet flying with SpaceX to a new Ariane 6 launch pad ; from Earth observation with SPOT, Pléiades or METOP/IASI, etc to Vega 6 ; etc), its military activities – already representing 12% of its budget – keep growing.
In addition to Helios, Athena-Fidus, MuSis-CSO programs, Ariane 5 is going to put in orbit the first of the 2 new-generation Syracuse military satellites, while 3 Ceres satellites (Ceres stands for ‘’Capacité d’écoute et de renseignement électromagnétique’’) will provide Europe its first space electromagnetic capability.
Last but not least, CNES is going to participate in research for the development of French space active defense new capabilities, such as ‘’patrol’’ nano-satelllites aimed a defending space-based assets by identifying threats and responding if necessary with the use of blinding or laser weapons (Yoda program).
CNES is also involved in a vast number of international programs, while the French air and space force is used via its Air defense and air operations command, the CDAOA (‘’Commandement de la défense aérienne et des opérations aériennes ’’) and its Air Operations Center of Excellence CASPOA – AO-COE (the ‘’Centre d’analyse et de simulation pour la préparation aux opérations aériennes’’ has been a NATO CoE since 2008) to work with space assets within a coalition, and especially in close cooperation with the United States.
Third is the enhanced pursuit of enhanced allied cooperation.
Indeed, international cooperation is vital for France and Europe to pursue the ‘’new frontier’’ adventure and face the ‘’new front’’ of threats, but also opportunities.
Germany, Italy, but also the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, as well India and Japan are identified as key partners for France in the 2019 military space strategy.
The United States is considered by France a critical partner for space military operations, one of the reason why France officially joined a year ago the CSpO – Combined Space Operations – which initially included the Five-Eyes countries (in 2017 France along with Germany had become associate members).
In addition, NATO just approved Paris’s request to locate a new CoE in Toulouse. Planned for this summer, this center will welcome 42 experts – among which 17 foreigners – in charge of doctrine, prospective analysis, training and exercises.
ASTER X (pronounced in French ‘’Asterix’’) is therefore the first of many exercises to come.
Its code name is a tribute for the very first satellite ‘’Asterix’’ France put in orbit by the Diamond rocket in 1965 (the Diamond rocket was launched later on from a site in Kourou, which is currently undergoing renovation in order to become a new base for microlaunchers).
Both are also of course a tribute to the famous cartoon character all French people grew up with since 1959: Astérix, a very stubborn chief of a Gallic village whose worst and constant fear is that the sky falls on they head… Not such an irrational fear after all …
Featured Graphic: CSO Satellite Asterx: Credit: CNES
The original article was published in Breaking Defense on April 9, 2021. This is an expanded version of that article.
For the 2019 new French space policy, see below: